Legislative Reform

Illinois’ General Assembly is a representative body that makes our state laws. Is everyone represented? What impact do party politics have on lawmaking?

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What is Legislative Reform?

Legislative reform at the state level focuses on changes we can make to the structure or functions of the legislative branch of our state government or to the selection process for state legislators. The goal is to ensure that our legislature fairly represents everyone in the state of Illinois in addition to being reasonably efficient, accountable, and free of corruption.

Illinois Legislative Branch

Illinois’s state legislature, which is called the General Assembly, is similar to the legislative branch of the national government. It is where representatives of the people come together to enact, amend, or repeal laws at the state level. In addition to making laws, legislators are charged with appropriating money for the state government, act on any amendments to the U.S. constitution, and confirm government appointments at the state level. Each member of the legislature is elected to represent a geographic portion of the state.

Illinois’s General Assembly is bicameral, meaning that it has two houses: a House of Representatives and a State Senate. The House is made up of 118 members, while the Senate has 59 members. 

Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms, while members of the Senate serve either four years or two years, depending on when they are elected. There are no term limits for either body.

The legislature meets most frequently between January and May, with additional “special sessions” and veto sessions as needed, which are called by legislative leadership or the governor.

Every 10 years, following a national census, the state legislature controls the process of redistricting, in which Illinois’s state and federal election are redrawn to reflect new population levels.

Some statistics on the Illinois General Assembly:

Demographics of lawmakers:

  • 31% women
  • 69% men
  • 75% White, Non-hispanic
  • 18% African American
  • 7% Hispanic/Latino
  • 0% Asian

  • 62% Democrats, 38% Republicans
    • House: 60% Democrats, 40% Republicans
    • Senate: 68% Democrats, 32% Republicans


Comparative statistics for Illinois:

  • 51% women
  • 49% men
  • 63% White, Non-Hispanic
  • 14.5% African American
  • 15.8% Hispanic/Latino
  • 4.6% Asian
  • 2% Other

Committees in the General Assembly:

  • 87 house committees
  • 67 senate committees and subcommittees

Bills passed by 98th General Assembly: 636 

  • 371 originated in the house, 
  • 265 originated in the senate. 


What are some current topics for reform?

District representation

How can we set up a legislative system in which everyone in Illinois is fairly represented, but which also creates an efficient (not gridlocked) government?

Many people argue that Illinois’s legislative races are not very competitive. In Illinois, less than half of eligible voters turn out for state legislative elections, and one of the two major parties does not run a candidate in over 40 percent of the races. Is this a function of our electoral structure?

Illinois uses a winner-take-all system to elect its state legislators. State representatives and senators are elected in single-member districts, with the winner being the candidate who receives the most votes. 

From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used cumulative voting to elect its House of Representatives. In this system, three legislators were elected from larger districts, and voters had three votes each. They could give all three votes to one candidate, one and a half votes to two candidates, or one vote to three candidates.

Arguments in favor of winner-take-all voting:

  • It allows both majority and minority parties to be represented in the legislature. Typically the largest major party elected two of the district’s three officials, and the smaller party voted in one official.
  • It creates competitive elections because in winner-take-all districts, if you are the minority party, you are discouraged from even running a candidate
  • It encourages voter turnout because supporters of both parties can win representation if they go to the polls.
  • It discourages gerrymandering because even if a district is drawn to put one party in the minority, that party can still elect a candidate.

Arguments in favor of winner-take-all voting:

  • Winning parties have a stronger majority with single-member districts. This makes state government more efficient because they can vote decisively on state laws.
  • The multiple-member districts are confusing to voters, large percentages of whom already do not know their state representatives.
  • Having only one seat creates more competitive elections because the stakes for each seat are higher.

Resources

FairVote

Types of Voting Systems

Sizes of Legislature

Term Limits

None of Illinois’s elected officials are subject to term limits, and there is currently much debate in Illinois about whether to implement them, and for which offices.

The average tenure of current Illinois lawmakers is 8-9 years. Speaker of the House Mike Madigan has been a member of the state legislature since 1971, and has been Speaker of the House for 29 of those 43 years. 

Currently, 15 states have term limits for state legislators. 

Arguments in favor of term limits for state legislators:

  • Term limits make it difficult for legislators to amass political support that leads to “machine politics”
  • Term limits would make legislative elections more competitive because many would-be candidates are currently deterred from running against long time incumbents

Arguments against term limits for state legislators:

  • Term limits would make it difficult for new legislators to be effective because they need to spend time learning the ropes and gaining seniority within the assembly
  • Term limits diminish the power of a state legislature relative to the other branches of government, especially the executive branch because individual representatives would not have time to build the influence and experience it would take to counter the executive

Resources

Legislative Term Limits Overview

The Amendment

Redistricting

Once every 10 years following the national census, Illinois’s constitution states that new district maps must be drawn by the state legislature. Illinois’s legislature draws maps for both state (General Assembly) and federal (Congressional) districts. This is done because populations of states and particular districts may change within a 10-year period, and it may be necessary to reapportion the 435 congressional districts equally among all 50 states. 

There is criticism that having redistricting processes controlled by state legislatures can lead to gerrymandering, which is when the party in power at the time of drawing uses its influence to draw districts that give it an unfair advantage in elections. 

In 2011, the Illinois Republican Party unsuccessfully sued Democratic lawmakers, charging that the state’s recently redrawn maps were skewed against them and drawn to favor Democrats running for office in the state. 

Twenty-one states have a redistricting commission that draws up the plan, advises the legislature on drawing up the plan, or acts as a backup if the legislature fails to draw up the plan for legislative districts. The makeup and rules of these commissions are unique to each state.

Resources

Yes for Independent Maps

Illinois Redistricting

NCSL Redisctricting

Conflict of Interest Prevention

Every state legislature is challenged with keeping its members accountable to the voters and free of corruption. Many states attempt to solve this by creating rules to specifically deter elected officials from using their office as a tool for their personal gain. For example, they may establish rules that prohibit legislators from voting on something they are personally biased about because of their relationship with a company. 

Illinois received a grade of “D” in legislative accountability, according to the State Integrity Investigation, which grades states on:

  • How much lawmakers are held to account for their decisions
  • Whether the state has laws attempting to prevent conflicts of interest from influencing lawmakers’ decisions
  • How accessible legislative records and documents are to citizens so they can check up on lawmakers

Summary of Illinois conflict of interest laws:

  • Illinois laws restrict legislators from taking a job for a private sector company that received direct legislative ruling for one year after their term in office has ended.
  • Illinois legislators submit economic interest forms when they run for office to declare any potential conflicts of interest, but this information is not audited.
  • Illinois does not prevent legislators from lobbying other office holders after their term has ended.

Resources

Chicago is the Most Corrupt City in the Country

Illinois Voters: Political Corruption "Common" In Our State

About the State Integrity Investigation

Conflict of Interest